May 19, 2008

How to buy something at Darty

We’d been in need of a new bathroom scale, so yesterday we headed to a local Darty, a chain of stores with a selection somewhat like Best Buy—appliances, electronics, and suchlike. I was expecting this to be an extremely simple operation: pick out a scale, take it to the register, pay for it, and leave. But ah—this is France.

First of all, I was a little overwhelmed at the store’s scale selection. There were, I think, 15 or 20 models, ranging from simple mechanical models to extremely high-tech numbers with lots of buttons and sensors and doohickeys. Naturally I was drawn to the latter category, but I couldn’t really justify spending 100 euros on a scale just because it looks like it belongs on a spaceship. Of course, the one really interesting piece of information we would have liked to have, in order to make an informed decision, was the relative accuracy of the scales; sadly, that was the one fact not even hinted at in the products’ descriptions. (On the other hand, several of the scales with glass tops had stickers on them saying “Slippery When Wet,” and we both thought that was a rather odd design flaw for something intended to be stepped on, in bare feet, in the wettest room of the house.)

We eventually settled on a unattractive but cheap model with a digital display and a nonslip surface. So now all we had to do was pay for it and leave. But wait—how does one actually do that? Having spent a considerable portion of my career designing software, I’ve formed an opinion or two about good user interface, and Darty struck me as an example of very bad user interface, because there was nothing to inform us, the customers, of how one goes about purchasing merchandise.

As is usual in stores of this sort, the shelves at Darty have just one exemplar of each item on display; you decide what you want and then somehow retrieve the actual box you’ll take home from a storeroom in the back. That’s fine. Now here’s the thing: exactly how do you go about getting the item from the back? There were no signs, anywhere in the store, explaining what the process is. We thought maybe there were forms to fill out and hand in, but we looked all around and couldn’t find any. Each item did have a label with a SKU (a unique numeric identifier), so we thought about just writing down the one for our scale, but then we couldn’t determine where to take that number—to the counter at the back, where people were clearly picking things up, or to the front, where people were clearly paying for them, or to any of the numerous sales desks around the store, or what?

After spending considerable time observing other customers, we worked out that there were indeed special slips of paper onto which the SKU had to be written, but these were only to be found in the pockets of salespeople. All the salespeople were busy either helping other customers or participating in a game I’ll call “darty,” which involved suddenly darting away whenever we cast a hopeful glance in their direction.

At last, though, we cornered a red-shirted employee, pointed out the scale we wanted, and got her to write its number down on the magic slip of paper, which looks like this:

Darty Sales Ticket

Then she walked over to a computer station, typed in the number, and confirmed that the scale was in stock. The computer gave her another number, which she also wrote on the slip, instructing us to go up to the front and hand it to the cashier. OK. So we paid, and received a form in triplicate that we then had to take to the pick-up desk. The helpful clerk there had already retrieved the scale from the storeroom, so she just scanned our paper and stuck the scale in a bag (with two of the three pages the cashier had given us), and out we went.

This little adventure, which should have been the easiest thing in the world, turned out to be rather irritating and stressful for us, but also kind of amusing—a quintessentially French experience. It nicely illustrates several of the principles we’ve seen in action over and over in this country:

  • Everything requires a conversation: It would probably never occur to a French person that Darty has a poor user interface, because French culture involves endless discussion and negotiation. What’s the problem? If you want something, or you don’t understand what’s going on, you just ask someone. C’est normal. If you want to buy something at Darty, you have to have conversations with at least three different people. Unfortunately for us, this is not the most introvert-friendly arrangement. And it goes without saying that all this discussion will be in French; if you’re not able to converse reasonably well, then tant pis pour vous. (Is the term for “bathroom scale,” pèse-personne, which I’d never encountered before, masculine or feminine? Gah! I incorrectly guessed feminine, but the salesperson got the idea anyway.)

  • Leave it to the experts: French people are used to asking for assistance constantly, including nearly every time they buy something. If you go to the market for a melon, the grocer has to pick out the right one for you. If you want some nonprescription pain reliever, you still have to ask a pharmacist. And if you want a scale, you will of course naturally ask a salesperson. The whole notion of consumers simply reading labels and making decisions on their own is rather foreign.

  • No job is too small: France has a high unemployment rate but very high job security for those who do have jobs, and businesses tend to be designed to employ the maximum number of people. (Contrast this with the North American model of trying to reduce overhead by increasing efficiency and reducing the number of employees.) So of course one person could have taken our order, picked up the scale, and taken our money—but then there would be no reason to employ the other two.

  • Paper, paper everywhere: Counting the reservation ticket, the triplicate order form, the credit card receipt handed to me, and the duplicate receipt the cashier put into his file, the sale of this scale generated six pieces of paper. That’s very much the norm here. Seemingly nothing can be done without reams of documentation being created. Coming from the U.S. where you now often have to pay extra for paper copies of things like utility bills and bank statements, this focus on paper seems rather old-fashioned.

Anyway, we did successfully leave with the scale of our choice, for a very reasonable 20 euros. And this was an interesting surprise: the switch on the bottom lets you choose not only pounds or kilograms, but also stones. Cool.

13 Responses to “How to buy something at Darty”

  1. Charles O'Rourke said:

    “There were, I think, 15 or 20 models, ranging from simple mechanical models to extremely high-tech numbers with lots of buttons and sensors and doohickeys. Naturally I was drawn to the latter category, but I couldn’t really justify spending 100 euros on a scale just because it looks like it belongs on a spaceship.”

    On a spaceship, wouldn’t you just need a scale with a zero painted on the face?

  2. Kirk said:

    Wow, I so disagree with some of your observations. 🙂

    First, “Everything requires a conversation”. That’s an interesting thought, but false. You cannot judge French commerce by Darty, which is a store that sells lots of things that are too big to have on shelves. Not the scales, but all the rest of the stuff. French stores that sell such things are very old-fashioned – in the sense that you need a paper, then you go somewhere else, then you pay somewhere else, then you pick up your item. This is something you can still see in a handful of old-fashioned patisseries in France as well – you ask for your food, then get a paper, and see the old lady at the cash register, who stamps your paper and gives it back to you.

    Darty is a bit of an exception in the way they work. Most other stores will have the smaller items (scales, rasors, etc) on the shelves, but at Darty, the employees get commissions, so they don’t have things on shelves. Otherwise, they would not get a commission for “selling” your scale.

    As for drugstores, you still have to ask a pharmacist because of protectionism. That is going to change soon – some non-prescrpition items will be in “libre service” soon, but it is pure protectionism. The pharmacists have been fighting tooth and nail to keep supermarkets from selling such things. Heck, it took forever for supermarkets to even be able to sell band-aids.

    And as for the jobs, I strongly disagree. There are far more people in an American supermarket, wandering the aisles, and even – gasp! – bagging your purchases. I have rarely seen any cashier in a supermarket put things in bags, and never additional people bagging and helping customers get their bags to their cars.

    No, there is no high job security here. There may have been through the 80s or so, but that’s long gone.


  3. Joe Kissell said:

    Charles: Artificial gravity, you know 🙂

    Kirk: The things I’ve noticed, like everything requiring a conversation, weren’t by any means specific to Darty; I’ve seen this many, many times in all sorts of French establishments. I was merely saying that my experience at Darty illustrated that. Certainly, your experience may have been different, but I’ve found that it’s extremely normal to have to talk to a person to get anything done, things that would be automated (or at least explained by signs) in the U.S.

  4. Stephen W. Carson said:

    I hope I don’t ruin the mood of celebrating the uniqueness of French ways, but putting on my political economist hat: “France has a high unemployment rate but very high job security for those who do have jobs”

    These two things are not unrelated. The French government made it so hard to discharge employees that companies became much more shy about hiring people in the first place. Thus the high unemployment rate.

    If you reverse roles for a moment you can see why this is so. Imagine this… To quit as an employee in France you must explain (in zillions of paper forms) why you are quitting the job, you must fulfill many regulations that restrict your ability to quit the job, you must pay the employer lots of money to make up for the damage you have done by quitting your position, etc.

    Certainly you would consider employment akin to slavery (or signing up for the US military in stop-loss mode). You would prefer to find alternatives to regular employment… Perhaps temp positions, unofficial employment or just finding some way to avoid work at all.

    This is the position that French (and many other West European) governments have put employers.

  5. Alastair said:

    I have a certain sympathy with you Joe – although I’m getting used to it after 4+ years, there are aspects of the Dutch way of life that still leave me scratching my head and wondering if NO-ONE’s ever thought of a better way of doing this.

    However, they seem to be happy enough with life here, and I doubt they’re going to change things just because I don’t like them. Perhaps it’s like that article you wrote on ITOTD about baguettes – the French don’t consider buying bread twice a day to be an inconvenience, that’s just how it is (I’m paraphrasing here).

    Your Darty store sounds like Argos in the UK, though there you are allowed to write the product numbers on pieces of paper yourself before paying and collecting your items. BUT, if you had such difficulty finding a free salesman, doesn’t it suggest that they need more not fewer staff?

    Just a thought from a fellow expat.


  6. Joe Kissell said:


    Thanks very much for your comments! The point I was trying to make (somewhat obliquely) is that I think the employees who write down numbers for you – presumably, as Kirk said, to earn commissions – are not actually performing a useful service from my point of view as a customer. They’re complicating, not helping, the process of buying something, so what the store needs is not more of them, but a way to buy goods that doesn’t require each purchase to go through a salesperson!


  7. Thibaut said:

    Nice observations. I have some trouble with your “no job is too small”, but the conversational and expertise aspects are spot on. As for the papers, more and more people are complaining about them and I think this is slowly going away. You totally have to go to the marché Saint Pierre near the Sacré Coeur in you haven’t done that yet : it’s a big linen store, very old fashioned, “très désuet”. No electronics involved, or so it seems.

  8. William Skyvington said:

    Joe: You could have taken advantage of a Darty employee to assist you in choosing the ideal pèse-personne. Then you might have thanked him for his assistance while explaining, say, that you couldn’t purchase it immediately because you were awaiting the delivery of your bank card. Finally, you would have gone back to your flat, accessed Google France and typed in “pèse personne”. Even with delivery charges, most stuff of that kind is cheaper on the Internet.

  9. William Skyvington said:

    Joe: You apparently felt shy about using the term “pèse-personne” without knowing that it was masculine gender. There are all sorts of ways of avoiding such minor problems.

    1 — Simply ask. “Comment ça se dit ? UN pèse-personne ou UNE pèse-personne ?”

    2 — Avoid the grammatical article. “On veut voir les différents modèles de pèse-personne.”

    3 — Naive enquiries in round-about language. “Bonjour. Montrez-nous, s’il vous plaît, les appareils qui nous indiquent notre poids.”

    Curiously, you seemed to be complaining about the necessity of having to communicate in French with French people. I would have imagined, on the contrary, that this was your goal…

    For learners of French, the two fundamental phrase models are:

    — “Que veut dire DEGUELASSE ?” [Merci Jean Seberg]

    — “Comment dit-on DISGUSTING en français ?”

    The rest is just practice…

  10. Joe Kissell said:

    William: I wasn’t complaining. Just saying that if someone doesn’t speak French well, the process can be even more intimidating and confusing than it already is! Thanks for the suggested “talk-arounds,” though!

  11. Geoffrey R. Staines said:


    I cannot think about Darty without thinking about Télématin (the France 2 morning show) and the intros (and outros) to the weather reports, brought to you by Darty (le contrat de confiance).

    However, my comment actually concerns the gender of pèse-personne.

    French likes to create compound words with the “verb-object” format, such as pèse-personne. There are also brise-glace (ice breaker), ouvre-boîte (can opener), tire-bouchon (corkscrew), coupe-papier (paper knife), coupe-vent (windcheater or windbreaker), lance-pierres (catapult), attrape-nigaud (con game) and many, many more. Unless I am mistaken, these are always masculine.

  12. Joe Kissell said:

    Geoffrey: Thanks for that insight! I’ll keep that in mind.

  13. Jordan said:

    Joe Kissell, I empathise greatly with you and thank you for solving the Darty mystery for me. I had to buy a kettle recently and someone suggested Darty. It was a complete mystery to me. In the end I went and asked somebody behind the cash desk how to purchase something and she came and got the number from the shelf and then took my money and pointed me to a queue at the back but it still left me wondering what the correct method was. My French is passable but not good enough to engage in detailed conversations about the Darty way. We need to go over again soon a buy loads more electricals for our new apartment and to be honest, I think doing it the Darty way is going to be a big pain in the butt so we’re looking for other stores at the moment that just have the items on the shelf.